On the Futility of Negative Anniversaries

A piece of polemic which some people may violently disagree with

My next-door neighbour’s wife died at about this time last year. She was my neighbour too, of course; but her long illness meant that I’d barely met her. I knew that she was lovable only from the way he talked about her. While she was alive, though she could barely respond to him, there was still something he could do for her. Then there wasn’t.

I wish, for his sake, that the air was not so thickly dreich – it wasn’t cold last year, either, as you may remember – and that the winking Christmas lights in the houses across the road did not keep their vigil so unceasingly. I don’t want to be reminded of last year because I don’t want him to be. The days from Christmas to New Year, however, are of all dates in the year the ones most loaded with significance, and therefore they are unforgettable; so I fear they will never be the same again for him.

We can’t, and we shouldn’t, try to excise all negative memories from our lives. They are part of what shapes us. And trying to push them out of our consciousness might cause more problems than it solves. That said, I think that consciously keeping negative anniversaries is a bad idea.

The greatest example of this is Remembrance Day. I’m not going to argue that Remembrance Day has failed because war and conflict have continued over the past hundred years. Stephen Pinker argues that the present time is probably the most peaceable age the human species has ever experienced. I am, however, going to argue that this has not occurred because of Remembrance Day, but despite it.

It would, surely, have been psychologically impossible for a society traumatised by the First World War to have considered the idea that the slaughter of their young men had been unnecessary or futile. (I’m not suggesting, by the way, that I think I know that World War I could have been averted, or that I know what would have happened had it not occurred.) Remembrance Day had to be, as it has been ever since, an exercise in referring to war in heroic terms. “The ultimate sacrifice,” say war memorials across the country. “Greater love hath no man.” The messy and unwilling deaths of conscripts barely out of childhood were transformed into a positive act on their part; and, as the trauma of direct loss has faded out of memory, that is the way it has been repeated ever since. Because we still believe that injured soldiers are by definition “heroes”, some of us can almost believe that there must be some inherent virtue in conflict. Thus, this country intervened in Syria even though there was considerable doubt over whether the specific actions proposed would do any good. The doctrine of heroism does not require a heroic act to do any good, as long as it’s done with the best of intentions.

Meanwhile, governments in Europe have stopped fighting one another – well, literally, at any rate – because governments who have a welfare state to keep up, and an economy to protect, find it hard to justify the diversion of massive sums in order to kill people and disrupt markets. That is, it is the real version of warfare, not the hallowed, remembered version that we are put off by.

The other situation in which recalling negative events is fetishised is in the realm of talking therapies. Now I am not by any means contesting the idea that unpleasant experiences have significant psychological effects, nor that discussing the former may help to resolve the latter. I certainly don’t want to be unfair towards the psychological profession, which contains many wise and thoughtful people. However, at a time when I was rather emotionally vulnerable I did spend a few sessions with a counsellor who, in good faith, really wanted me to dwell on the negatives of my (really very happy) childhood. I always left in floods of tears. If she had asked me to tell her some happy memories I could have convulsed myself with laughter. Eventually she decided I was too much of a hard nut to crack.

Of course, had my childhood been traumatic it would have been appropriate for her to have coaxed me to discuss it. But in that circumstance, surely, the memories of that trauma, however repressed, would still be active. Likewise, Remembrance Day in 1919 was a solace for the survivors, and relatives of the victims, of a national catastrophe whose effects were still painful and vivid. People did not need a special day to prompt them to remember the war. People needed a special day to acknowledge the fact that they were remembering it already. Nor would the mourners at any memorial service have actually forgotten the subject of it since his or her death.

Facebook has for some time been in the habit of inviting its members to “share a memory” (by which they mean “photo”) from one or more years previously. I imagine that it’s assumed that people will, by and large, have memorialised the positive elements in their lives, because we all curate our public images assiduously these days to present positive versions of ourselves to the world (and those who don’t, I’d guess, are the ones most successful at presenting a positive version of themselves to themselves). Nonetheless, people complain, every now and then, that Facebook has reminded them of a bereavement or a broken friendship – which supports my assertion that, once a negative occurrence has faded from immediate memory, being made to recall it by anniversaries can be a harmful thing.

Let’s not forget, also, that an anniversary is not what it commemorates. There is the stereotype of the hapless husband who forgets his wedding anniversary and risks the wrath of his wife, who accuses him of having ceased to love her. But we know, don’t we? that her accusation, on these grounds alone, is false. This is a comic stereotype. The husband has forgotten, not the wife herself, but a symbolic commemoration of a symbolic ceremony. We know that that is forgivable – that absolute reverence is not required.

When I die, of course, I want there to be a memorial ceremony, orchestrated or otherwise. I’d like those who regret my passing to show up with some drinks and sing, possibly for more than one night, as I have seen done for others. However, the following year, as much as I like the idea of being recalled to mind every now and then, in connection with a song, an event or a place, I’d rather the date of my death were absolutely forgotten. I would rather be remembered positively than negatively – rather be remembered for having lived, than for having died.

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How I learnt to love the Sheffield Carols

The Sheffield Carols are a group of folk songs traditionally sung in pubs in South Yorkshire during the run-up to Christmas.

I didn’t like them at first. They have no shame. They sound a little like music-hall songs, a little like hymns, and a little like boy-band songs, and are sung with all the subtlety and tenderness of football chants. They are uncompromisingly, ebulliently cheerful, their happy melodies underpinned by a definite and triumphant piano part. When the last chorus of each song has been sung, the crowd enjoy it so much they sing it again.. and again.. and sometimes even again. And the words! “While Shepherds”, over and over again.

It was, therefore, with reluctance that I allowed myself to be talked into going along to the Sheffield Carol sessions last year. I’ll come along for a bit, I said, and was even later than I said I’d be. I had to edge my way into the room; it was so full that the door wouldn’t open. People were standing crammed awkwardly into irregular gaps between tables and piano, and bar and fireplace, clutching dog-eared song sheets and trying not to spill their drinks. Thump thump thump, went the piano. Blingy blingy bling, went the fiddles. The voices lifted up.. and then, I think, I got it.

Most of us have read “When the Grinch Stole Christmas”, Dr Seuss’s parable about how a misanthropic recluse stole all the goods that had been bought for Christmas in order to spoil it, and was woken on Christmas morning by the sound of children singing. His recognition of his own ill-nature and the ability of others to take pleasure in things which are not about acquisition causes a quasi-spiritual awakening.

I rather fear that, if the Grinch were to carry out his plot today he would meet with more success than in the book. Conspicuous consumption stands in for joviality over the festive season. We shop so that we may trade one gift for another, and call it generosity. If you believe the adverts, Christmas is about presents and a big dinner. Remove them, and there is no festival.

Every year churchmen say the same, and plead for a return to church. They are half right and half wrong. Right because participating in ceremony and music which pertain to shared beliefs have been the basis of feast, festival and celebration throughout most of history. Wrong, because, in an increasingly secular and multi-faith society, disdaining a version of Christmas which lacks a Christian dimension might be more divisive than constructive.

“But,” it could be said, “the Sheffield Carols are religious. Therefore they can’t be part of a secular Christmas.”

I’d argue that they are secular – or at least, as secular as you want them to be. Of course, many people do sing them as an act of faith. They suit robust, optimistic Christianity, the faith of those who believe that human beings and God are, likewise, good at heart, and that things will work out for the best. But they are secular because they are sung outside the Church, because they are conducted entirely without ceremony, and because – if you want them to be – the lyrics are entirely irrelevant. “Fear not, said he, for mighty dread had seized their troubled mind,”, the crowd belts out, to a rollicking tune not expressive of anything so troublesome as fear and dread. There’s also the presence of a couple of songs that have made it into the canon despite having nothing to do with Christmas. One is about the beauty of Swaledale and one is about the comical comeuppance of a philandering traveller. Believing in the latter’s Just Deserts is no prerequisite to singing about him; nor does singing “The angel of the Lord came down” constitute a declaration that you believe it happened.

As for the music, the whole point about the Sheffield Carols is that they lack subtlety. It would be inimical to their spirit for them to be ashamed of predictability, or desirous of expressive range. They are there to make people happy. They are, as church cannot be any more, for many of us, and as the ugly charge to the Metro Centre has never been, all about sharing, and love, and a broad, expansive kind of tribalism. The Grinch couldn’t steal that.

So there I was last night, allocated enough space by the crowd for both my feet, angling to see a song-sheet and adding impromptu descants, as the tradition permits. Around me, a throng praised God – or sang about him, anyway – who were not shining, nor miraculous, nor angelic. Just happy. It was like a gigantic group hug.

Sunday Bloggerel: A Box of Books

My hand, flat as a shovel, slices down
The ridged wall of volume ends. As I
Detach and raise that section, there's the reek
Of beech woods in the dying year, when leaves
In crinkling layers settle on the ground,
And merge to it to feed the roots; they lie
Only to rise. Within these stacks I seek
All that the world discovers or conceives.
Thus the unearther of a forlorn town,
Lifting the leaves of clay, blows off the dry
Dust; discerns a people's prints; a weak
And silent palimpsest of what time thieves.
Not wit, nor love, nor genius can survive their age,
But trap their fragile shades upon the page.